EU diktat fundamentally changes organic regulations

You probably haven’t heard about it. That’s what happens when bureaucrats make sweeping policy changes by diktat.

They don’t leave any time for discussion and then say there’s no need because the changes are only administrative: Don’t worry, just get on with things. Then a little later you find that things that fundamentally affect you or your business have dramatically changed – probably not for the better – and you haven’t had any say in it.

This is what is about to happen with the way organic food and farming is regulated throughout the EU. By the 1st of January the existing organic control systems will have been scrapped and a fundamentally different regime will be in place.

You probably haven’t heard about it because the EU Commission didn’t tell anyone about it until early May – even though DG Agriculture has been running an extensive review of the current organic regulation and conducting a wide-ranging public consultation.

You probably haven’t heard about it because Defra hasn’t told anyone about it and the organic sector bodies (including in the UK) have either accepted it or are confused by it – even though it so fundamentally affects the way the sector is regulated that they should be banging down doors in Brussels and screaming murder about the lack of consultation – any other industry would.

What has happened is that, without notification or discussion with any stakeholders, the Commission added the EU organic regulations to an existing proposal to harmonise a range of official control measures in the food chain. These include accreditation of labs, residues of veterinary products, aspects of border controls, animal and plant health – all generic and none with the complexity of organic agriculture and food systems.

This possibly sensible proposal has been kicking around since 2010 and has been the subject of wide consultation since 2011. However the decision to add the organic regulation, and its potentially far reaching implications, has not been subject to any consultation.

The heart – and most worrying aspect – of the proposal is to move organic regulatory responsibility from Directorate General for Agriculture (DG AGRI) to Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection (DG SANCO).

DG AGRI will continue to be responsible for drawing up production rules but the inspection and control systems will be under DG SANCO.

The Commission argue that it has different DGs but it is all one body and this change will not affect how organic regulations operate – which begs the question why change?

Anyone who has had anything to do with these DGs treats this claim with disdain.

DG SANCO has a tick box culture wholly unsuited to dealing with complex systems; it operates largely on final product analysis which is light years away from how organic standards and regulations have worked and developed; and, with its flawed approach to GMO evaluation and its promotion of uniformity and sterility in food systems, has a poor reputation with consumers.

In any event the whole methodology underpinning the text of the new “harmonised” regulation is at odds with the current organic regulations. There is little chance that the kind of production rules – based on systems – developed by the organic sector and adopted by DG AGRI will survive the SANCO machine.

Nor will the provision of organic or even agricultural expertise. DG SANCO has no experience or expertise in these areas. It simply has no knowledge of them. The Commission claims DG AGRI will continue to provide it – if so why the change?

At best this is a cost cutting measure and DG AGRI input – and all the costly consultations and discussions with the organic sector- will be whittled down.

But it is more than that; the Commission is finally dealing with its organic cuckoo; its rather expensive, doesn’t fit anywhere but impacts across the board, jumped up, idiosyncratic organic regulation.The Commission disputes this and says there will be no change. But there will be – even if the view presented here of fundamental change overstates the case – there will be significant impacts on the organic sector which haven’t been thought through or discussed.

Since the Commission began to be involved in organic issues in the mid 1980s, the organic sector has had a close and constructive relationship with DG AGRI (and is predecessor). Organic regulations were build on the organic sector’s standards and the DG AGRI has sought to learn about organic principles and the nuances of organic practice and accommodate them in the regulatory framework.

EU policy support has benefitted and to a large extent been build on this relationship, understanding and regulatory platform. The existence of a stakeholder engaged and paid for certification scheme paved the way for policy support because it has enabled measures, identification and monitoring to be put in place effectively and relatively cheaply.

None of this would have happened with DG SANCO in the driving seat and it can all come undone if they are put there now. What the Commission proposes to do is ill thought through at best and could be a disaster for the sector at all levels.

Banging on doors and screaming no is called for.

17/8/2013

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